The Heresy of Wokeness

Without Christianity, It Wouldn't Even Exist

In 416 b.c., during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Athens decided to attack the neutral island of Melos. When the Melians protested they had done Athens no wrong, the Athenians replied, "The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must." The Melians were starved into surrender, their men were killed, and their women and children were sold into slavery.

None of this was unusual in the ancient world. The strong, it was supposed, had every right to dominate the weak. Neither the gods nor the moral codes opposed domination. Atheist historian Tom Holland describes his feelings about the Greco-Roman world this way: "It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value."

So what changed? As Holland notes, the difference was Christianity.

Christians and Jews believed that all persons were made in the image of God. Thus, every person had intrinsic worth and dignity. On this basis, oppression of the poor and weak was condemned. Neither might nor wealth made right. Christianity further emphasized the spiritual and moral equality of all people. Not only do we all share the same humanity, but we all suffer from the same problem—sin.

Because of these ideas, Christianity is the sole historical source of concepts now taken for granted: human dignity, human equality, and universal human rights. As other prominent atheists such as Jürgen Habermas and Luc Ferry admit, these ideas are at the root of our modern concern for the poor and oppressed.

This is why it's accurate to call "wokeness" a Christian heresy.

"Heresy" comes from the Greek verb hairein, which means "to choose." The idea is, heresy is the result of choosing one thing that is true and then running with it until it distorts everything else. "Wokeness," a way of seeing the world built on critical theory, fastens onto the Christian idea that oppression is evil, but makes it the sole significant fact about humanity and society, while rejecting so much else that Christianity teaches—original sin, forgiveness, and salvation.

Various expressions of critical theory and "woke" rhetoric resonate with so many Christians because the appeal is rooted in legitimate biblical concerns about the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the potential misuse of power. However, it fails on many other levels.

Given their failure to diagnose sin, it's not surprising that critical theories lack an adequate understanding of salvation. At best, acceptance is offered to those who accept its worldview, but even then, the guilt of certain groups and the moral superiority of other groups is fixed and perpetual. This also means that forgiveness and reconciliation are effectively ruled out a priori.

Wokeness is built on a worldview without salvation, and it offers an eschatology with no real hope. Though the proclaimed goal is to end oppression, it's what the late sociologist Philip Rieff called a "deathwork," dedicated to tearing down things but unable to build, or offer, anything better. Advocates of critical race theory, for example, argue that although race is a cultural construct, racism is an inevitable and irredeemable trait of certain groups and society. They cannot offer a vision of the world in which this sin is defeated or redeemed, much less one in which the guilty are forgiven and restored. The best that can be hoped for is to replace one set of powers with another.

Playing off legitimate concerns about power and corruption, concerns first introduced to the world by the Christian vision, critical theories push these ideas to the point of reframing the Gospel.

The real problems with race and injustice in America need to be addressed. However, any expression of critical theory fails even as an analytical tool for Christians because it is built on a flawed and contrary worldview. 

John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center and co-host of BreakPoint, the daily commentary on culture begun by Chuck Colson.

is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, a Senior Faculty Member of the Colson Fellows, and the author of Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home (Zondervan, 2009).

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #58, Fall 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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